Tom Wolfe Goes ‘Back to Blood’ in Miami

Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today, October 22, 2012

If a novelist were seeking the stereotypical and literary garret in which to work, few spaces would be as elegant as the book-lined, high-ceilinged study in Tom Wolfe’s 12-room apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

But at 81, Wolfe advises novelists and reporters to “leave the building!” In other words, get out among the people and places you’re writing about, even if it means spending a night at a Russian-run Miami strip club. Call it research.

That’s what Wolfe did while writing Back to Blood (Little, Brown, on sale Tuesday), a sprawling 704-page novel about an art forgery, set amid Miami’s ethnic and racial divisions. It’s driven by Wolfe’s enduring interests in power, sex, wealth, class and most of all, he says, “status.”

{snip}

Blood (the title refers to bloodlines) is “highly journalistic,” says Wolfe, who became a literary celebrity in the 1960s and ‘70s. He pioneered the “New Journalism,” using novelistic techniques in non-fiction, including The Right Stuff, his 1979 best seller about American astronauts.

In his living room, he describes Miami as “the only city in the world where more than half the residents are recent immigrants, and not just Cubans, but Haitians and Russians and Nicaraguans. In the past 33 years, the Cubans have staged a political takeover—not through an invasion but at the ballot box! It’s probably the only city like that.”

{snip}

In Blood, Wolfe’s fictional Cuban-American mayor reflects on his city’s diversity, “a hell of a thing, when you think about it. . . .   I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everyone hates everybody.”

How true is that?

“I did hear that and it was spoken with sincerity,” Wolfe says. “Leaving aside the extreme connotations of hate, Miami is a melting pot filled with objects that don’t want to melt.”

Another scene describes a tense City Hall meeting where the black police chief thinks to himself, “Every Cuban in this room thought of himself as white. But that wasn’t the way real white people thought of them. They ought to hang around Pine Crest a little or the Coral Gables. That would curl their hair for them! To the real white boys they were all brown people, colored folks, just a shade or two lighter than he was.”

Wolfe says, “That’s a typical point of view,” and notes that a city, where about 20% of the residents are black, has had four black police chiefs: “Not to woo votes, but as a kind of buffer against riots.”

In 2008 and 2009, Wolfe says he spent nearly as much time in Miami as at home in New York. He enlisted Oscar Corral, a former Miami Herald reporter and son of Cuban immigrants, as his guide and translator.

Corral, 38, says he was struck by Wolfe’s energy and interest in doing “shoe-leather-type reporting. He’d go anywhere and talk to anyone. He was always patient. He has great manners and he’d get people to open up about themselves.”

{snip}

If he’s conservative in fashion and technology, Wolfe says he’s not politically, despite “what others may say.”

He defines himself as “one of the most democratic—with a small D—persons in the land.” As far back as he recalls, he has voted for the winning presidential candidate—Republicans, including George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Democrats, including Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1996—with one exception. In 1992, he says he voted for George H.W. Bush, who lost to Clinton.

{snip}

Both Wolfe and a few of his characters take issue with political correctness. Twice in Blood, he uses the phrase “Mexican standoff.” Evan Morris, who writes The Word Detective, a website and syndicated column on language, says the phrase is “almost certainly just another entry in the long and shameful roster of U.S. slang terms employing Mexican as a slur.”

Wolfe says, “I never even thought of the ramifications. It seem to me it’s an ethnically neutral term that’s widely used.”

The early reviews for Blood have been mixed. Booklist praises it as “shrewd, riling, and exciting.” The New York Times calls it “soapy, gripping and sometimes glib.” Wolfe says criticism “goes with the territory.”

{snip}

Wolfe has begun work on his next book, a non-fiction exploration of evolution. He has ideas for another novel set in New York which “has changed a lot since Bonfire which was mostly about blacks and whites. Now, there’s all the Hispanic immigrants and gentrification in places like Harlem and Brooklyn.”

{snip}

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  • In the past 33 years, the Cubans have staged a political takeover—not through an invasion but at the ballot box! It’s probably the only city like that.”

    Watch for more to come.

    Wolfe says, “… about 20% of the residents are black, has had four black police chiefs: “Not to woo votes, but as a kind of buffer against riots.”

    It’s amazing how a writer can write fiction based in reality while we can’t talk about such issues openly.

    Most cities eventually get a black chief of police. Not because they’re necessarily better qualified but only because blacks demand it. Once they have their black police chief, even if crime goes up, they’re not as likely to attack a black chief of police.  

    • Oil Can Harry

      “In Miami, eveyone hates everybody.”

      This is true of all diverse cities, especially Los Angeles. However, in homogenous cities there’s far less conflict.

      But I thought “diversity is a strength”… 

  • KevinPhillipsBong

    I pray he lives long enough (and then some) to write the books he has planned. I’ve been a big fan of his since Bonfire of the Vanities (don’t watch the movie though, it’s dreadful). I received notice today that my order of Back to Blood should arrive tomorrow. I can’t wait.

    • Strider73

      Why wait for snail mail? You can download the Kindle version instantly and save a tree (plus some cash) in the process. Getting a Kindle was one of the best buys I’ve ever made! (Now I’m waiting for the Fire HD to arrive early next month.)

      • vladdy1

        I REALLY thought about that (you don’t need a Kindle; it’ll load your on your computer when you download the kindle app.) I’m eager and hate to wait till Friday, but I just want that nice, hefty book in my hand and library.

  • Defiant White

    QUOTE:   “Every Cuban in this room thought of himself as white. But that wasn’t the way real white people thought of them. They ought to hang around Pine Crest a little or the Coral Gables. That would curl their hair for them! To the real white boys they were all brown people, colored folks, just a shade or two lighter than he was.”

    Actually, this isn’t true.  It’s more the way Wolfe thinks a negro might think about Cubans.

    Back when Miami was totally white (1950s-1960s) the immigrants from Cuba, Central and South America were mostly white and mostly  wealthy.  The refugees who escaped Castro early in the 1960s weren’t wealthy since they had to leave it all behind, but they were educated and went right to work in Miami.  This wave was basically spanish-speaking Europeans and fit in pretty well.  You might see a handful in your class and they were like anybody else.

    It all changed in the 1970s.  You began seeing more and more “boat people.”  These were poor and uneducated welfare people.   In 1980, you had the Mariel Boatlift where 150,000 mostly poor, mostly black and brown Cubans flooded Miami in about a six-month period.  That’s when little brown people from all over Latin America and Haitian blacks started swarming in.

    But by then, Coral Gables had also changed.  Most Americans had already taken off and rich Cubans, Colombians and Venezuelans started buying homes.  Today, it’s probably 90-95% white and about half of those are Latin American whites and the rest American whites.

    So the lesson learned is that whites who act white can all get along regardless of what language they speak.  Things only fall apart when different races (who have different attitudes and behaviors) get mixed in.

    • “In 1980, you had the Mariel Boatlift where 150,000 mostly poor, mostly
      black and brown Cubans flooded Miami in about a six-month period. 
      That’s when little brown people from all over Latin America and Haitian
      blacks started swarming in.”

      Thank you Jimmy Carter.

      •  Scarface

      • Castro emptied Cuba’s jails of some of the most notorious criminals, and Carter took them in.

  • Wolfe is perspicacious, but I don’t know where his heart is. He seems to be content with Zolaesque reporting. Just, I don’t see- even implicitly – his ethical & national stance. 

  • bluffcreek1967

    Isn’t it tragic that in almost every major city in the U.S. that has a large population of Blacks, Blacks must be appointed to major positions (e.g., police chief, mayor) in order to keep them from rioting?! What does this tell you about the nature of Black people? 

  • JackKrak

    Miami – just like NYC, LA, much of NJ, and a good chunk of many US cities – is “American” only in the strictest geographical sense.

  • We’re nearly the tipping point as a nation; as a culture.

  • FourFooted_Messiah

    Miami?  Think again, Tom (though I love your books) ….

    Witness Toronto. last I heard the number of forreign-born there is now 52%, most, if not all of them, “visible minorities”.  Not just Cubans and Nicauraguans (though I remember meeting the latter in that city as far back as 1988) – but mostly Pakistanis, Sikhs, and Africans from lord knows where.

    Please come write a book of Toronto Then and Now.  We don’t have Pierre Berton to do anything like that for us any more.

    •  The ignorant , brainwashed white populations of the GTA have been bragging about how multicultural they are for decades. It’s still the most boring city in Canada despite all of the wonderful diversity. Smaller mostly white cities and towns throughout Ontario have far more character and charm than that haven of self-hating leftists swimming in their multi-cultural stew.

  • panjoomby

    Tom Wolfe is on our side. I highly recommend his “A Man in Full.” Also his old essay, “Mau-Mau-ing the Flak Catchers.” He was racially aware long before I was.

    • KD_Did

      I have read ” Flack Catchers”  Wolfe talks about Community Organizers long before I had ever heard that term.  A surprisingly non-PC essay written before it was the norm.
       http://teageegeepea.tripod.com/maumau.html

  •  
    I only know ONE Cuban-American who defines himself as “Hispanic”—and he is a registered Democrat.  Most middle- and upper-class Cubans do NOT want to mix with either blacks or mulattos (of any nationality) and are ferociously socially conservative but somewhat less conservative economically. Most of them are two or three generations removed from Spain, including a lot of rural, white Cubans (guajiros).  If you would like to see how Cubanos handle leftist groups like Code Pink, check out this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFas_y27WTo

    They are FIERCE!

  •  
    Total BS—most Cuban-Americans dislike being lumped together with the mestizo hordes invading this country.

    • Triarius

      And Puerto Ricans hate Mexicans, Dominicans hate Haitians, etc. This doesn’t change the fact that the white Cubanos want to keep their identity. It is only natural, of course. Just because they are of European descent does not mean they will or do assimilate well.

      Long term is a different story perhaps, but one or two generations removed, no. The Irish and Italians took longer than that also.

  • The first waves of immigrants came for political reasons, not because they “wanted to be Americans”.

  • We SCARED of the blacketty blacks?

  • ricpic

    Try being white and living among Cubans. That’s a topic Wolfe wouldn’t touch with a twenty foot pole, because if he did and reported honestly on the pervasive hostility directed at whites, it would result in instant exile from all beautiful people salons everywhere for Tom.

    • vladdy1

      Heh. Read the parts about Jojo, white basketball player, and his black teammates in “Charlotte Simmons.” Wolfe has no fear That may be why critics give him mixed reviews.

  • vladdy1

    Yes. I adore Wolfe. I’ve probably got everything he has written. I think he’s the best writer out there today. My favorite is “Charlotte Simmons  ,” which makes a lot of intriguing statements about race, class, and culture at the university level.

  • Jaundiced1

     I also enjoyed Bonfire of the Vanities for similar reasons.  Another book of his which I intend to read is: Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers

    .  It’s actually two essays which cover race-realist themes.